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Meet the workers who power Detroit's Auto Show

Mercedes Mejia
Michigan Radio

At Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, the focus is naturally on the cars.

But behind the scenes, more than 2,000 people labor to make sure visitors are impressed by what they see.

Detroit has hosted an auto show for over a century now. And in a place known as the Motor City, it’s always been a pretty big deal.

But as the automotive industry has declined in Detroit, and the car industry has gone truly global, the event now known as the North American International Auto show has only gotten more important.

More than just cars and turntables

And since it’s gotten bigger, it takes a lot more time and effort to put on the show than it used to.

Jimmy Albert, a union steward with Teamsters Loal 299, has watched that happen. They do most of the heavy lifting around Cobo Center, home of the auto show.

“I came here shortly after high school…almost 19, and 52 years old now,” said Albert. “So I’ve been around.”

And needless to say, things have changed a whole lot during that time.

“At one time, it was just turntables and cars and maybe an ID sign, and it took about a week to set up,” Albert said. “Now, it’s a two-and-a-half month set-up.”

And Albert said it’s a whole different world on the floor than what you saw back in the turntable days. He likes all the exhibits, but is a particular fan of the German automakers.

“Look at the 3-D effect of the way the ceiling comes down here,” Albert said, pointing at Audi’s section of the show floor. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a cleaner, nice (exhibit).”

Albert helps lead some of more than 1,200 skilled trades workers who are responsible for building, running, and then dismantling the show’s infrastructure. And that’s a whole lot of infrastructure.

“Crates of flooring, crates of glass…all come through the Teamsters,” Albert said. “As a matter of fact at night, set change last night, I had 70 fork lift crews here. They switch cars, they take lights down...they change everything for the public.”

This biggest group of workers is also the show’s most invisible. But there are other folks out on the show floor who blend into the landscape almost as much – from the catering staff handing out fancy, free cappuccinos, to the people who help sometimes-clueless automotive reporters navigate the simulated race car experience that a number of automakers feature.

The models: Now known as “product specialists”

Then there are the folks working the show who are meant to be seen: the ubiquitous auto show models whose good looks are supposed to help … let’s say, draw heightened attention to the products on display.

But these days, most aren’t just models. They’re “product specialists.” And they have to know a lot about the cars they’re showing off, especially when the people they’re trying to impress are auto journalists and industry insiders.

Rebecca Shelby, a product specialist for Chevrolet, said she’s been working the auto show circuit for nine years. She found the job through a local talent agency.

“You don’t have to know all about cars when you first go in there. They just want to know that you have the capacity to learn,” said Shelby. “They gave us training at GM, and then they send us out to all the auto shows around the country.”

Shelby says it’s a pretty cool job. You get to travel, and meet people from all over the country and around the world.

But you also spend a lot of time on your feet. “We do get breaks, but for the most part, you’re in high heels,” said Shelby with a laugh.

Shelby is like most of the workers here, for whom the auto show is just one of a string of gigs they’ll work at year-round. And for many, it’s also a second or third job they’ve added to scrape together a living.

But it’s a really big one. And while something like“total economic impact” is hard to measure, auto show organizers say the event brings something like $370 million into southeast Michigan every year, some of which ends up in workers’ pockets.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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